Busing won’t fix education gaps

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The Louisville Courier-Journal is spreading ink and electrons again regarding supposed uneven racial demographics in the Jefferson County Public Schools. Still, Louisville supposedly has a better racial mix in its schools than other areas of the country according to a recent USA Today report. However, the unfortunate truth is that a better racial mix in schools isn’t solving the more important problem, the racial achievement gap. Louisville is a poster child for that reality.

The Bluegrass Institute examined white minus black achievement gaps in JCPS in several reports, the latest being our “Blacks Still Falling Through Gaps, the 2012 Update.” Our reports show the largest achievement gaps are found in schools in the East Side of Jefferson County. It appears that blacks can be bused to those schools to make demographic statistics look better, but once inside the school door, something sad happens. The better education the white students receive does not pass on to the blacks. Perhaps it’s segregation at the classroom level, maybe something else. But, busing isn’t fixing the problem, and Louisville has now bused for over four decades.

In some cases Louisville’s blacks might have been better off if they had stayed in West Side schools.

There has been inadequate official attention to this problem. As we reported late in 2013, Kentucky’s Unbridled Learning system currently does a very poor job of identifying and dealing with racial achievement gap issues. You can’t fix hidden problems.

For example, as we point out in Blacks Still Falling Through Gaps, Unbridled Learning actually awarded high ratings in 2012 to Norton and Brandeis elementary schools although both posted incredibly large white minus black math proficiency rate gaps of more than 51 percentage points that year. Nevertheless, both schools were recognized as a “School of Distinction” by Unbridled Learning.

To be sure, Norton and Brandeis did a much better than average job teaching math to their white students in 2012, but for bused in blacks such benefits didn’t follow. It’s an old problem, and it isn’t getting better in the district’s slow-to-change system.

What could help would be real alternative school choices like charter schools. States with better charter school programs are showing good progress in lifting minority student performance. And, this often is happening at lower costs to taxpayers, as well.

It’s time for Louisville to stop chasing decades old, failed ideas about fixing performance gaps with buses and move on to something that shows more promise for minority students where it really counts – better performance.

Burn less diesel. Cut down on traffic in Louisville. Open up real choices to parents. That is the way to go.

KCTCS: Sky-high salaries, falling enrollment and lots of secrecy

Will Jay Box, president-elect of the Kentucky Community & Technical College System, be compensated at the same level as outgoing KCTCS president Michael McCall, whose salary and benefits added up to a hefty $669,463 last year?

There’s no way for taxpayers to know – at least not until the contract’s signed.

Who were the 40 candidates Box beat out for the job?  (Box currently holds the position of chancellor, the system’s No. 2 spot.)

There’s no way for Kentuckians to know. Will we ever be given this answer?

It’s understandable that the KCTCS board doesn’t want to discuss these sensitive issues. But this is not a private corporation hiring a CEO. It’s a community and technical college system that receives public dollars and compensates its president at among the highest levels in the country – even as enrollment falls significantly.

Bluegrass Institute president Jim Waters tells the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting that the whole process – including compensation plans – demands more transparency and openness.

Kentucky’s proposed social studies standards – an unappetizing turkey

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Thanksgiving is a time of remembrance and gratefulness in our country. It’s a time when we recall the sacrifices and great struggles our forebears endured to build our great nation. And, in some states they do a solid job of teaching public school students about the background of this major American holiday. For example, the Massachusetts statewide social studies standards include this third grade requirement to insure all students in that state to learn about the first Thanksgiving:

“3.3 Identify who the Pilgrims were and explain why they left Europe to seek religious freedom; describe their journey and their early years in the Plymouth Colony. (H, G, C, E)
A. the purpose of the Mayflower Compact and its principles of self-government
B. challenges in settling in America
C. events leading to the first Thanksgiving”

That’s a great lesson standard in Massachusetts. It does not provide full curriculum on the subject, but it does provide a solid outline of what is generally expected to be covered in each school.

That’s good for Massachusetts; but, kids in Kentucky’s schools probably won’t learn much about the history behind Thanksgiving if a proposed revision to Kentucky’s social studies standards is adopted. You see, many of the special things this season brings to mind were totally ignored by whoever put the Kentucky draft social studies standards revision together.

For example, a search of the PDF version of the social studies draft that was presented to the Kentucky Board of Education in early October fails to locate a single mention of any of the following terms often associated with the first Thanksgiving celebration in our country:

• “Pilgrim” (“Pilgrim” or “Pilgrims” mentioned 10 times in the Massachusetts social studies standards)
• “Mayflower Compact” (Mentioned 5 times in the Massachusetts’ standards)
• “Thanksgiving” (Holiday mentioned 4 times in Massachusetts’ standards)
• “National Holiday” (“National Holidays” mentioned 5 times in Massachusetts’ standards with specific direction to teach children the background behind each of the national holidays)
• “Patriot” (Variations of “Patriot” including “Patriotism” and “Patriotic” are found 7 times in Massachusetts’ standards)

Consider that last bullet: social studies should be teaching students about citizenship. Apparently someone in the Kentucky Department of Education doesn’t think patriotism plays any role in that.

So, as you sit down to a big dinner on Thursday, take a moment to be thankful that Kentucky’s social studies revision has been put on hold while the Kentucky Board of Education catches its breath to reconsider.

Personally, I hope the board takes a good look at the excellent standards from Massachusetts and decides to use that as a model to build a really superior social studies standard for Kentucky, one that will insure all Kentucky students learn about this important and historic holiday and a whole lot of other important things about our country and state that the Kentucky draft proposal totally ignores.

Right now, the board is collecting public comments about the social studies revision, and I urge you to contact them to encourage a real set of standards like those in Massachusetts and not a vacuous, unnourishing turkey. There is a quick response site for inputs here. However, that surveymonkey site might overly restrict and channel your suggestions, so don’t be reluctant to write a letter that says it exactly the way you want it, to be sent to:

Kentucky Board of Education
c/o Kentucky Department of Education
501 Mero Street
Frankfort, KY 40601

Now, go do some homework over this Thanksgiving weekend so Kentucky’s kids can really get a good social studies education! And, do have a very Happy Thanksgiving!

Bluegrass Beacon: Government programs ‘should not be shrouded in mystery’

BluegrassBeaconLogoA lack of transparency puts taxpayers who fund the government, including its secretive practices, at a distinct disadvantage from which it’s difficult to recover.

So says the man widely hailed as a key architect of the imploding, incompetently named Affordable Care Act.

“Lack of transparency is a huge political advantage and basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever – but basically that was really, really critical to getting it passed,” Jonathan Gruber, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist and primary designer of Obamacare, told MIT colleagues in comments made last year as part of a panel discussion captured on YouTube but released after the recent midterm election.

Gruber thinks throwing the cloak of secrecy around Obamacare was the right thing to do because voters and their political representatives would have been too “stupid” to go along with it – had they known the truth.

“Look … I wish we could make it all transparent, but I’d rather have this law than not,” he lectured.

Gruber acknowledged that had the law been transparently presented as taxes in the form of mandates for individuals and employers, and if the administration had been open about the fact that Obamacare was “a law which said that healthy people are going to pay in — you made explicit healthy people pay in and sick people get money – it would not have passed.”

The situation’s not unlike what Kentuckians will discover when the bright light of truth-bearing transparency shines on key aspects of our commonwealth’s faltering retirement system.

Bills pre-filed for next year’s legislative session would break open the highly secretive Kentucky Retirement Systems (KRS) – one of the nation’s unhealthiest that, without substantial reform, offers the likelihood that taxes will go up while important services, including education and even public safety, will get squeezed in future budgets.

Amazingly, legislative leaders in Frankfort – primarily the entrenched political bosses in the House – have managed during recent years to bury transparency bills related to this crisis-riddled retirement system in the deep waters of committee bureaucracy.

They no doubt understand that Kentuckians are “too stupid” to remain on any boat they know is about to tip over the falls of corruption down into insolvency and continued budgetary shortfalls.

Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, and Sen. Chris McDaniel, R-Taylor Mill, have pre-filed bills to bring at least some of the serious KRS woes to light. Such transparency should create the kind of momentum for badly needed systemic reforms that only an informed citizenry can push for.

McDaniel’s Bill Request 85 makes all current or former legislators’ benefits – including those received from both the legislative pension plan as well as goodies drawn from other state plans – subject to open-records laws.

Wayne’s BR 91 shines the bright light of transparency and accountability on current corrupt KRS investment practices, including a good-ol’-boy system that controls who manages billions of dollars’ worth of investment funds and their fees.

How the commonwealth’s political leaders respond to these proposals will offer dead-on clues as to what Frankfort’s political environment will be like during the next biennium.

House leaders could imitate the head of their party and namesake of Obamacare himself in Washington and double-down in their defense of the status quo of secrecy.

Or, they may listen to Wayne, their political brother-in-arms, who said when filing his bill: “The health and wellbeing of public employee retirement systems should not be shrouded in mystery. No one should be required to invest their hard-earned money in a system that is not fully transparent. Not only should public employees know if the systems are financially stable, the taxpayers should also know.”

Once they know, I’m betting that they’re likely to be “stupid” enough to be smart enough to know exactly what to do.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.

Kentucky Chamber of Commerce members overwhelmingly favor charter schools

Hear Dave Adkission, head of the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce, explain to the Kentucky Legislature’s Interim Joint Education Committee why he and the vast majority of his organizations members favor public charter schools.

Debunked: Charter school myths you can hear in Kentucky

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Here is a discussion about some common myths about charter schools. This comes from people involved with these innovative, public schools of choice in Philadelphia.

Students in a Philadelphia charter high schools benefit from results like zero dropout rates and 97 to 100 percent college going rates. No wonder members of the Philadelphia teachers union send their own children to charter schools!

Meanwhile, thousands of Bluegrass State children, especially the poor and minority kids, continue to be under-served by our one-size-must-fit-all, traditional school system. Things have not improved that much for our minority kids since KERA was enacted almost a quarter of a century ago. It’s time for new ideas in Kentucky’s public schools and time to stop listening to myths that block such real change from happening.

Lack of transparency: You don’t have to go to Washington to find it

There has been a lot of discussion in the past few days about intentional lack of transparency with the development and enactment of the Affordable Care Act, but Kentuckians don’t have to look to Washington for examples of the public’s business being kept from the public and their elected officials.

In fact, a story WDRB is breaking in Louisville shows the elected officials at the Jefferson County Board of Education were kept in the dark regarding questionable employee actions and an expensive settlement negotiated behind closed doors.

The issue concerns a former employee who once held a six-figure salary job as Jefferson County’s public information officer. That job was cut and the employee moved to human resources, getting a lower-paying – but still six-figure – salary. The employee didn’t last long in human resources, getting fired “for misconduct and insubordination, according to a copy of her termination letter obtained by WDRB News through an open records request.”

All of this happened without the vast majority, perhaps all, of the Jefferson County Board of Education having even a clue about what was occurring.

The school district defended the secrecy surrounding a $200,000 settlement, saying:

“While we stand behind what we have done, you have to weigh a lot of things. Do we fight the fight that we think is the right fight and do so with an open-ended checkbook, which is the taxpayers’ checkbook, or do we try to settle a situation and make a good business decision?”

Well, here are just a few questions about management in Jefferson County Schools all the secrecy has left unanswered. In raising them, I want to stress that the secrecy in this situation does not allow the public to know if the employee actually was wronged or was in the wrong.

• If the six-figure salary job of public information officer was eliminated, who now performs those functions? Were there two very highly paid people nominally doing this at Jefferson County?
• Was the employee’s move from public information to a six-figure salary human resources position a good skills fit? Who determined that? Was this really just a make-work action?
• Was the firing actually justified? Does the district’s refusal to defend its action actually indicate the firing might not be justified? If the firing was actually questionable, who is being held accountable? How would a similar mistake be avoided in the future if everything is secret?
• If the firing was justified, what kind of precedent is set by the district’s failure to stand behind its actions? Doesn’t this open the taxpayer up to unending, expensive settlements that might not be justified?
• Should the elected board of education be involved with actions, especially job terminations, involving high level district personnel? Is there a legal requirement for such involvement? If so, is there a salary point or job description that would determine the need for board involvement?
• Most important of all, what is being done, if anything, to preclude another expensive action like this in the future? Are the best interests of the taxpayers served by just sweeping this under the rug?

Keep in mind that Jefferson County School’s management history is already under question for being far from stellar. A recent audit by Kentucky Auditor of Public Accounts Adam Edelen raised lots of questions about how the district was handling the public’s tax dollars. Right now, it looks like somewhere around $200,000 more of those tax dollars might have been poorly spent while the local board of education – again – was left without a clue.

Mendell Grinter: What low-income parents say about education in Kentucky

How charter schools can help

The Kentucky Legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Education heard testimony about school choice and achievement gaps at its November 10, 2014 meeting, and one of the key speakers was Mendell Grinter, the head of the Kentucky branch of the Black Alliance for Educational Options. Mendell’s group does a lot of outreach to parents of color to find out what challenges they and their children are facing in our educational system.

This short video, which contains some key comments from Mendell’s testimony, is worth your time.

School choice for Kentucky: How much more evidence do we need to look at???

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During the Kentucky Legislature’s Interim Joint Education Committee hearings on school choice and charter schools for Kentucky on November 10, 2014, one Kentucky state senator said he first needed to do more research, including digging into such things as terrible performance at Lexington’s William Wells Brown Elementary School.

But, how much more research can we possibly need?

For starters, William Wells Brown Elementary School was the lowest performing school in Kentucky in the recently released Unbridled Learning results from 2014. The Kentucky School Report Cards for William Wells show its overall Unbridled Learning accountability score actually declined between 2012 and 2013. Then, William Wells’ scores dropped again between 2013 and 2014.

In William Wells only a dismally low 19.8 percent of the African-American students were proficient on reading in 2014 testing. Statewide, African-Americans posted a 33.8 percent proficiency rate, 170 percent of the William Wells performance, though that is still far too low.

Things were even worse in math. Only 15.3 percent of William Wells’ African-Americans were proficient while statewide the figure was 30.3 percent, just shy of being 200 percent of the William Wells figure.

Even more telling, the school was designated as a “Focus School” three years ago in 2012. This school has been getting “researched” for three years already, but that has not helped. As I mentioned earlier, Unbridled Learning says William Wells just keeps getting worse. Its students suffer while the traditional system keeps trying unimaginative things that make work for adults and don’t work for kids. We don’t need a jobs project in our public schools – we need real, effective education.

Sadly, the William Wells story isn’t unique. And, stories like it are nothing new in Kentucky, either.

Furthermore, the “research” has been in for some time.

These four graphs show the Kentucky-wide public school white and black proficiency rates on fourth and eighth grade reading and math from the earliest to latest available State National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) administrations. The evidence is clear: Kentucky achievement gaps in 2013 in every single case are larger than they were in the first available test year of this State NAEP data.

G4 NAEP Reading P Rates for KY Whites and Blacks by Year

G4 NAEP Math P Rates for KY Whites and Blacks by Year

G8 NAEP Reading P Rates for KY Whites and Blacks by Year

G8 NAEP Math P Rates for KY Whites and Blacks by Year

Aside from the obvious growth in Kentucky’s white minus black NAEP achievement gaps, one of the really distressing messages in these graphs is that black proficiency rates have improved very little over the past two-plus decades that KERA has been in force in Kentucky. In fact, there have been no statistically significant changes for fourth and eighth grade African-American reading since 2003. And, Grade 8 African-American math improvement essentially has been static since 2007.

Anyone who says they need to do more study of these issues probably isn’t studying at all. Kentucky has a major achievement gap problem. The state has had it for a long time. It isn’t getting better.

There has been nearly a quarter of a century to do “studies” since KERA was enacted. Meanwhile, minority kids in this state’s traditional public education system have continued to seriously under-perform the state’s whites for nearly a quarter of a century. It’s time to start looking for imaginative new answers that work outside of the box. School choice is one of those out of the box ways to help improve Kentucky’s achievement gap problems.

Bluegrass Beacon: This Bud’s distributorship is for Anheuser-Busch

BluegrassBeaconLogoAnheuser-Busch LLC wants to purchase Budweiser of Owensboro,  an independent distributorship  owned by the Hand family. The    Hand family wants to sell.

However, opponents claim that allowing the transfer of the distributorship license would violate the three-tiered system – a special set of rules established following the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 to regulate the alcohol industry.

As a result of this opposition, the sale, which already had the approval of local ABC officials, had been put on hold; opponents had planned to use a Nov. 21 hearing in Frankfort to stop it.

However, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip J. Shepherd last week ordered the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control to issue a wholesale beer distributor’s license to Anheuser-Busch. Past court decisions have ruled that state law that prevents prohibits makers of distilled spirits and wine from owning distributors did not apply to brewers of malt beverages.

While the three-tiered system is intended to guard against monopolies and insure a level playing field for smaller producers, these shenanigans offer an example of how the policy is misused by those who live in a constant state of populistic frenzy about larger, successful companies – whether they brew beer or sell groceries – who simply want to produce, promote and protect their products without arbitrary government interference.

Among Anheuser-Busch’s opponents are, unsurprisingly, competitors and their lobbyists who serve up a keg full of misinformation and magnify misperceptions that allowing this voluntary exchange would be a slippery slope – at the bottom of which sits smaller producers crying tears in their craft beers because they’re unable to get their products on to Owensboro’s store shelves.

Among those opponents is lobbyist Karen Thomas Lentz, executive director of the Kentucky Association of Beverage Retailers, who claims that granting the license transfer “might” – “might” – mean that some retailers are denied access to smaller brands.

“If I’m a craft brewer, I may not be able to get my product to retailers and they may not have access to my beer – if Anheuser-Busch, the distributor, doesn’t carry it,” Lentz told me. “And so, these craft beers are small – so your market really gets cut if distributors don’t include them.”

But if a small craft-beer maker lacks the wherewithal to get his product to market, he must do what every other small business does: find innovative ways to meet the challenge, not deny legitimate private transactions on the part of a subsidiary of one of America’s most recognizable companies.

Actually, the small craft-beer makers should be pushing to eliminate their forced participation in the outmoded tier system. It drives up costs by requiring them to use separate distributors to get their products to the retailer – even if it’s a restaurant next door.

Wouldn’t allowing a small brewery to deliver directly to a retailer offer a much-more viable competitive advantage to craft beer makers than trying to deny Anheuser-Busch a license to deliver its own Budweiser?

Another part of this brewing controversy involves the misperception that granting Anheuser-Busch a license transfer as part of this mutually agreeable transaction will somehow cause the lines drawn by the three-tiered system to be crossed.

However, the courts have already ruled that such arrangements are allowed as long as the transfer is followed by adherence to the rules regulating distributorships. In fact, Anheuser-Busch successfully turned around a fledgling distributorship in Louisville in 1978, where it employs 175 people and is a good local corporate partner.

Opponents of the Owensboro transaction fail to acknowledge that the craft-beer industry in Louisville – where Anheuser-Busch has operated for decades as a distributor – is “red hot,” according to Mayor Greg Fischer.

To address another of Lentz’s misperceptions, just because Anheuser-Busch won’t commit to carrying smaller craft beers cannot reasonably be translated into: “there will be no way for small craft-beer makers to get their product to retailers’ shelves without violating the three-tiered requirements.”

In fact, out of the 1 million cases the Hand operation has delivered this year, only 6,000 were filled with craft beer.

Lentz also tried to convince me that geographical restrictions would somehow hinder smaller producers. But there are other distributors with a solid presence in Owensboro – including Clark Distributing, which delivers Coors and Miller beers and other less well-known brands.

If small distributors and their retailers can’t figure out how to get a miniscule 6,000 cases of beer delivered and stocked during an entire year without forcing the king of beer distributors to do it, maybe they, too, should go the way of Prohibition.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute, Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.